Upstairs Community: building a tribe with people, not for people

Oana
November 24, 2020
Reading time 9 – 14 minutes
Katerina taking a photo when Pixelgrade turned 9

We’ve been working towards building and growing the Upstairs community for almost nine months. Although it’s easy to forget tribes take time and fall into the trap of not-good-enough, which brings worthless pressure, we managed to focus on learning and obtaining clarity about what we want to achieve (and how).

First of all, allow me to offer a broader context. We created this community because we needed a more diverse tribe built around our values — excellence, gratitude, and care. We put them at the core of everything we do, no matter how big or small, so it felt natural to guide our decisions around the Upstairs community by them.

Second of all, we wanted to bring more vulnerable stories to the surface. Narratives that have the power to help us feel less alone, to relate to, to increase our acceptance.

In a world full of content that expires one scroll away, we aim for the exact opposite.

Stories that pass the test of time, that get even more powerful in time, that break borders of any kind (territorial, financial, intellectual). And we managed to make that the core of the Upstairs community.

In many senses, we feel like an isolated island in the WordPress ecosystem. When most people zig, we zag. When the speech is too much around money, we bounce back with a discussion around values. When following the majority becomes the norm, we challenge their validity.

What follows is not a praise for our work or thinking, even though it would not harm to tap ourselves on a shoulder from time to time. It’s a compilation of insights packed into aha moments we had while publishing 15 stories written by people worldwide, like you and me.

I’m confident that if such aha moments can seem obvious today, which makes them less worthy of their status, I know for sure that I could not have landed here without going through the process. What goes around, comes around, right?

Let’s start the tsunami of revelations!


Aha #1 — Show care for anyone and everything

There are a plethora of newsletters out there, and some of them are incredibly valuable (Check your pulse from Sari Azout is one of those).

I took a lot of time to think about what makes them so meaningful, and a few aspects rose to the surface. From the welcome email, which expresses kindness to the simple fact that you get a carefully crafted answer if you reach the author.

These gestures might seem common sense, but the obvious is often neglected. Just try to reply to a newsletter you got today in your inbox and see what happens.

We took this human touch even further and created an experience that speaks to our community’s core. By that, I mean every single detail you could think of, from top to toe. For instance, we value our readers’ attention and facilitate them to focus on what truly matters: the story. We have no banners, no polished photographs, no catchy illustrations, and definitely no ads and tracking.

We created a canvas where the story is everything that matters. Any other distractions are out of discussion since they would be in contrast with our community’s essence.

In the end, we lead by example and try to convince others to be intimate and share a powerful yet fragile narrative about how they become a better person (mom, citizen, employee, entrepreneur, husband, neighbor, you name it).

A vulnerable story shared by Valentina, an Upstairs community member

Anything that is not aligned with this thought has repercussions, so we took deep care to protect this softness.

What shows us that it works is the nature of the stories we have published so far. There are narratives about terrible accidents, experiencing someone’s death, growing up without a father, doing a better job as a leader, or living with a chronic illness.

Of course, there are a bunch of pieces that contribute to this puzzle. Not only the way we deliver the story impacts the outcome, but also its design. We invested plenty of resources and iterated a lot to find the right visual “clothes” for the stories we publish for the Upstairs community in order to tailor them perfectly to what this tribe is about.

It’s easy to distract, notify, pop-up, and make noise, and it’s challenging to slow down the pace and encourage peace of mind.

Aha #2 — Be consistent to achieve clarity

From time to time, I felt like I was using the same words to define what’s the Upstairs community all about, and it became a bit annoying. No matter if I was talking with contributors (people who write a story), or the members (people who read and provide feedback), the language spectrum felt tight.

In the end, I’m a storyteller. Why not manifesting more creativity when it comes to writing?

I realized that such consistency creates clarity, and clarity generates trust, and trust welcomes depth. I needed all of them.

Thinking that I’m not creative nor can manifest my core skill set in that particular sense was a huge fallacy that I thankfully became aware of quite soon.

We express the values we stand for and what we envision with this tribe through everything we do. Creativity comes in various forms and shapes, not only in how we’re conveying the central message.

For instance, in how we consciously choose to grow the tribe or how we bring new contributors aboard. It’s crucial we do it in a way that is in-tune with our inner-why. No hacks, no misleading, no amplified numbers, no marketing tricks, no superficial approach.

On top of that, consistency makes you memorable. The more you repeat the same mantras over and over again, the more people will understand what’s it all about and decide if they resonate and want to do more than being a quiet listener.

The author intros for their Upstairs community story.

This coherence covers big actions, such as how we stick to the flow of bringing new people next to us, how we give a visual touch to every single edition, or little gestures, such as replying to each email from readers, no matter if it’s about us, the story, or the author.

This attitude makes an echo in the long haul. Today, its effects are easy to be overlooked, but we know that sticking to them will make this community even more powerful and reliable. Since we’re here to stay, it makes perfect sense to act this way.

Aha #3 — Have a good reason why you’re doing something

As makers in love with the craft, one of the biggest pitfalls is to try to experiment as much as possible. To find alternatives, raise the bar, test around, change the paradigm, and even innovate in various ways.

This mentality comes in hand and helps us tremendously in building digital products, but far less when it comes to nurturing an online community around stories that make us better people.

It’s not that we can’t reach our potential anymore; it’s just that we need to find different routes. For instance, we think the narratives we’ve been publishing are meaningful and deserve to reach a wider audience. This thought comes from a place of care and good intentions — why not offer these vulnerable stories to more people to help them feel less alone?

The mission is noble, but it defeats the purpose if we us the wrong approach to get us there. On the one hand, we need to adjust all actions to our values, and on the other hand, we don’t make an obsession out of numbers or any cold data.

It’s easy to track; it’s hard to trust your gut feeling. It’s easy to place ads; it’s hard to amplify your voice. It’s easy to find shortcuts; it’s hard to have patience.

It’s crucial for us to constantly ask ourselves what we want to accomplish by doing something or not doing it. There’s always a hidden cost, that’s for sure. We want to be aware of the bill we’re going to receive at some point, and still sleep peacefully.

We have a wide range of compelling ideas about how to get new members aboard. Some of them are tailored to what’s the Upstairs community about; others not really, but they have potential. We actively look at those that align with who we are and what we aim to accomplish and leave the rest on the table. It’s more work, but it comes with purposeful rewards that fill our tanks.

Testimonial from Stefana, one of our community members

One example is that we encourage current members to send the story to someone they care about, rather than sharing it on social media to get lost like a drop in the ocean. We have no control on their choice, but we created a flow that sustains and makes the first option convenient.

Aha #4 — Learn when to stop and rethink

Considering that one of our values at Pixelgrade (Upstairs community included) is excellence, it’s no wonder that we often push the boundaries. It what keeps our wheels spinning.

Knowing that we can reach bigger heights sometimes makes it hard for us to stop improving, iterating, working. We lack the exercise of pausing, even though we’re now more present in what we’re doing than ever—and we got here by forcing ourselves to learn when something is good enough to move next.

With the Upstairs tribe, we mastered to look at this rhythm through a different lens and try to change the pace. We’re still giving our best to keep the standards high and shape a pleasant experience for our members, but we have a better idea when to draw the line in the sand.

For example, we changed the initial promise we had when we kicked-off this adventure: weekly stories in your inbox, sent on Sunday. Along the way, it became overwhelming and not-sustainable because of a couple of straightforward reasons:

  • The narratives required a lot of fine-tuning and editing.
  • The authors have other responsibilities, too (as we do).
  • We’re located in different time zones, so delays are natural.

We changed it to twice a month, and it’s far better and convenient for all involved.

Another twist we made recently is related to how we decided to end this year. A few weeks ago, I was talking with my teammates (Andrei and George) about how I’d like to close 2020 concerning the Upstairs community.

I had two slightly different chats, but with one message in common: decide when to stop.

Andrei is a passionate marketer, so we quickly concluded that it would be nice to offer something special for the upcoming holiday and keep publishing stories. It made sense, so I started to think about how to pack it while finding a solution to maintain the content calendar.

Then, I had a change of ideas with George, too, who thought how nice it would be to read these narratives in print during Christmas. To take a moment to digest them thoroughly, to reflect on all those endeavors and ups-and-downs of life. Hmmmm… one day.

After some introspection, I realized that whatever we will give back, I want to reinforce that reading these narratives requires time, mental space, and a fair share of acceptance.

I started to dig more and remind myself why we started this community in the first place.

I realized that the most straightforward fashion to make this closure is through two stories. One that will hit your inbox on the 29th of November, on a Sunday, as we did until now. The other on the 13th of December, to announce a small gift we planned for our members. That’s all.

The Upstairs Community Stories archive

We don’t know when we are going to come back with a story in January, but we’re fine with this uncertainty. It’s wiser to be present and see how we feel and how things are rolling at the beginning of 2021 than making big promises. No updates, no surveys, nada, niente, nothing. We will make room for other ideas to flourish or simply enjoy time with our friends and families. We wish the same to you.


Even though I’ve been a community builder since 2011, I’m mesmerized to notice how much I still have to learn when building tribes following a clear set of values. The overall industry of community building grew. There’s more knowledge around it, far more initiatives, but still not enough examples of nurturing tribes in a sustainable and non-commercial tempo.

I’m keen to stay open and curious about how we will continue to shape the Upstairs community. Our members are priceless about their kindness and how generous they are with the way they participate. Hopefully, we will have the guts, the patience, and the drive to stay true to ourselves and keep doing things with our members, involving them in our becoming, not for them, for many years to come and aha moments to celebrate.

— Photo credits: Katerina Nedelcu

Oana
A question from Oana, community builder:
How do you know you build a community with your members next to you?

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